THIS IS A GUEST ROCKPILE BY KENNETH WEBER (@kdub1988)
After a disappointing 2020 season (and even more disappointing offseason), the Rockies own the ninth overall selection in the 2021 draft. While the upcoming class has an impressive array of talent to offer in the top ten picks, especially in high school infielders, the bevvy of college pitching available could present the Rockies with an opportunity to pick up an ideal piece for the future.
Kumar Rocker or Jack Leiter would look excellent in purple pinstripes, but they’ll be long gone by nine so let’s throw those pipedreams out. Flamethrowing, athletic LSU right-hander Jaden Hill may be in play, though. Maybe you would instead care for shiny new Texas ace Ty Madden? I certainly would. Finesse lefty Jordan Wicks looks like he belongs in the “order again” dropdown on a Rockies Amazon account. How about some helium surrounding Sam Bachman or Ryan Cusick rising them into the top ten? Yes please, and thank you.
Drafting talented collegiate arms with their first selection is nothing new for the Rockies and can actually be seen as a relative area of strength in the past decade. Since 2010, the Rockies have selected a college hurler with their top pick four times. Current rotation stalwarts Jon Gray and Kyle Freeland are alumni of this pedigree. Up-and-coming top pitching prospect Ryan Rolison is as well. So was Tyler Anderson, whose comeback train is currently stationed in Pittsburgh.
Gray has largely fulfilled his potential as a top-of-the-rotation piece since being selected third overall in the 2013 draft out of the University of Oklahoma. The former Sooner came into the draft sporting an electric fastball consistently hitting triple digits and has produced a 9.9 bWAR to this point in a Rockies uniform. While Gray hasn’t quite developed into one of the elite starters in baseball and has struggled with consistency in the majors, he has still pitched to an above-average 107 ERA+ in his career and posted strikeout numbers above league average from 2015-2019.
Freeland, too, has largely been a success story for the Rockies, albeit through a different skill set. The homegrown lefty was selected eighth overall out of Evansville University and has produced a 12.8 bWAR to date and an impressive career 119 ERA+. Despite sitting in the bottom third of the league in fastball velocity and possessing a below average strikeout rate, Freeland has averaged a ground ball percentage of 49.2% for his career according to FanGraphs (compared to a league average of 43.15% in that time) which has largely attributed to his success at the major league level.
While Rolison has yet to cut his teeth in the majors, all signs indicate he is on pace to reach the games highest stage. The verdict is still out on the Ole Miss product, considering 2019 was his first full season in pro ball and 2020 never happened. His current fastball and plus curve skillset has already laid the foundation of a major league caliber pitcher. The change up and overall command are still works in progress and if he stalls out in those areas there’s risk he may have a floor as a future reliever. However, this is not uncommon for pitching prospects and is more an area of needed refinement than full-blown progression for him to be capable of reaching his ceiling.
This profile is not entirely dissimilar to former first round pick Tyler Anderson, who put together three fine seasons in a Rockies uniform from 2016-2018. He hovered around league average in K/9 during that stretch and posted a 5.3 fWAR in that time. Although Anderson relied more on deception than Rolison does and utilized a changeup as his primary secondary offering, he projected as a back-of-the-rotation lefty who largely succeeded in that role after being drafted out of Oregon in the end of the 2011 first round. Anderson could end up being a respectable comparison to Rolison moving forward.
The reputation of college pitchers as being more polished than their prep-level counterparts may feel a tired narrative, but it often still rings true and for good reason. Barring injury, risk in development with many top-tier college arms is significantly lower than that of high school hurlers (looking at you Riley Pint), and as an organization entirely dependent on internal player development, the Rockies simply cannot afford not to produce positive major league contributors with its top draft pick. When looking back at the history of Rockies top draft picks of this past decade who fit the bill, it’s been hard to argue with the results.
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